AK: How will a vaccine passport work?

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Doctors were the first to be vaccinated for COVID-19 in Tallinn on December 27. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The world is looking for ways to exit the coronavirus crisis. To supplement vaccinations, a vaccine passport is seen as a possible way of opening the world up again, but ethical choices and security needs must be considered. Estonia is trying to at least offer the latter, ETV's news show "AK.Nädal" reported on Sunday.

As of the final week of February, close to 80,000 people have begun their vaccination cycle with nearly 34,000 of them having also received their second injection, finishing the process.

This means quite a few people have now received checkmarks in their yellow immunization plan, indicating that the person has received a coronavirus vaccine dose. A global pandemic however shows that a modern solution needs to be developed.

For vaccinated people to be allowed access in Europe and other parts of the world without having to quarantine and test, countries first need to be sure that the document is correct and not counterfeit. Estonia is trying to offer this kind of service in cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Marten Kaevats, digital affairs adviser to the Government Office of Estonia, said Estonia is leading a global initiative of making vaccination certificates work worldwide. "The problem is that countries are developing different technological solutions to prove if someone is vaccinated or not," he said.

Kaevats said the issue is not a technical one, but rather an international law one. "In principle, the question is in how one country can trust data from another," he noted.

Estonian cybersecurity firm Guardtime is prepared to present such a secure solution in a few weeks time - no longer a yellow piece of documentation, but rather a shiny vaccine certificate called VaccineGuard.

Guardtime's chief doctor Ain Aaviksoo said in addition to technological preparation, political decisions are needed. "[On Thursday], state heads decided that there is need for this. How long will the decision take, I think is a matter of months," he noted.

An international political agreement is necessary for the creation of such a system. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) recently presented the system to the European Council, where European state leaders confirmed the necessity of creating such a secure and unified system.

Aaviksoo said an agreement was made in principle with Israel, Cyprus and Greece. "They do not have a final agreement on what the technological solution will be, it could also be a solution offered by us. The same has been said of a Baltic and Scandinavian bubble. A gradual move in that direction is to come and it will likely look like this: the countries who are prepared first will use it and others will join later," Aaviksoo said.

Those in support of a vaccine passport believe that the certificate could ease travel restrictions and reinvigorate a damaged air travel sector, for example. Opponents however see plenty ethical and legal contradictions.

Who determines special rights to those who are vaccinated?

According to Kaevats, the WHO has pointed out possible worldwide inequalities caused by vaccinations.

Ingeri Luik-Tamme, a lawyer specializing in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, noted that there will be differing opinions between people when it comes to vaccines.

"In Estonia, we have been basing on vaccinations being voluntary and healthcare service consumption in general being volunatry - it would certainly be a step back. But as a realist, I see that there will be certain distinctions made, based on whether or not the person is vaccinated. Are they as broad as not allowing travel at all? Rather, it will be more complicated and bothersome for [non-vaccinated] people. There will likely be some vaccine-related restrictions or freedoms coming from one side or another," Luik-Tamme said.

The beginning of March in Estonia comes with a new set of restrictions that are equal to everyone - even those who have gone through or have been vaccinated for the coronavirus. Could the vaccine passport also be connected to wider freedom when it comes to travel or participation in society in the future? And could it become a motivator for hesitant people to get vaccinated more rapidly, to avoid a loss of time and doses?

According to Minister of Health and Labour Tanel Kiik (Center), some European countries are opposed to making distinctions between people who are vaccinated and those who are not.

"There are those countries in Europe who say there should be no first or second-grade residents with special rights. There are countries that think it is a place of debate. Staying in isolation is a measure implemented in Estonia for example. We have not made any distinctions when it comes to vaccinated people," Kiik said.

Therefore, speaking of vaccination passports is a topic that will come to fruition in the future. The more burning question is related to the topic of vaccination tempo.

Ain Aaviksoo said registering people for vaccines earlier would have helped. Tanel Kiik confirmed that there are plans to implement more suitable solutions for an e-state in the future than those used now, where lists were drawn up after calling each patient separately.

"There are certain changes to digital booking system, there is technical capacity to use digital registries for vaccinations. The question is more about if we could vaccinate the elderly first, calling them is reasonable to reach them. Later, if we are speaking of a broader population, we must certainly use more digital solutions so people could book their times," the health minister said.

Ain Aaviksoo pointed out another way how Estonia's network of digital registries could be used for vaccinations. "If we are trying to learn from the countries that have gotten ahead in vaccinations today, whether it be Israel the Great Britain, Serbia as well - the performer of a fourth phase of clinical trials has been confirmed, who will monitor the effectiveness of the vaccine," Aaviksoo said.

"Estonia's digital infrastructure would allow for this to be done in a way above average, while also ensuring security and privacy. Cooperating with vaccine developers is certainly something that needs to be considered, that would ensure necessary vaccine shipments," he noted.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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